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Pantazis v. Mack Trucks, Inc.

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

November 27, 2017

ANN E. PANTAZIS, executrix, [1]
v.
MACK TRUCKS, INC., & another. [2]

          Heard: September 12, 2017.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on April 11, 2012.

         The case against defendant Parker-Hannifin Corporation was heard by Raffi N. Yessayan, J., on a motion for summary judgment, and entry of judgment was ordered by Shannon Frison, J.; the case against defendant Mack Trucks, Inc., was heard by Daniel M. Wrenn, J., on a subsequent motion for summary judgment, and entry of judgment was ordered by him.

          Roger J. Brunelle for the plaintiff.

          William J. Dailey, III, for Mack Trucks, Inc.

          Richard L. Neumeier for Parker-Hannifin Corporation.

          Present: Milkey, Hanlon, & Shin, JJ.

          MILKEY, J.

          Mark Fidrych owned a dump truck that he used to haul soil. On the morning of April 13, 2009, Fidrych was seen at his farm working on the truck. Later that day, he was found dead underneath it, with his clothing caught up in a spinning universal joint (U-joint) that was part of the mechanical system used to tilt the "dump body" of the truck. The medical examiner identified the cause of death as accidental asphyxiation. In her capacity as executrix of Fidrych's estate, his widow, Ann Pantazis, filed a wrongful death action in the Superior Court. She sued, among others, Mack Trucks, Inc. (Mack Trucks), which manufactured the original, stripped-down version of the truck, and Parker-Hannifin Corporation (Parker-Hannifin), which had acquired the assets of Dana Corporation (Dana).[3] Dana manufactured a piece of equipment known as a "power take-off" (PTO), which was another part of the system used to tilt the dump body of Fidrych's truck. In two separate summary judgment rulings, different Superior Court judges ruled in favor of each of these defendants.[4] We affirm.

          1. Background.[5]

         In 1987, Fidrych purchased the truck from Winnipesaukee Truck P&T, an independent Mack Trucks dealer, which had purchased it from Mack Trucks the previous year.[6] At the time of Fidrych's purchase, the truck was what is known as an "incomplete vehicle." That meant that the truck had a chassis, cab, and engine, but it lacked essential components (and associated equipment) necessary to carry out the truck's ultimate intended function. Through the installation of additional components, incomplete vehicles can be outfitted for a wide variety of uses. For example, an incomplete vehicle can be outfitted for everything from a flatbed truck to a fire truck.

         After purchasing the truck as an incomplete vehicle, Fidrych had it transformed into a dump truck. This involved installing a dump body, as well as a mechanical system (auxiliary power system) for tilting that body. The outfitting of the incomplete vehicle occurred decades before the accident, and it is not known who performed that work.

         The auxiliary power system used the truck's transmission as the source of its power, employing a series of components that connected the transmission to a hydraulic pump. The transmission that Mack Trucks provided in the incomplete vehicle was designed so that it could be connected to a PTO, and in this case, a PTO manufactured by Dana was added. Once installed, a PTO is a fully enclosed piece of equipment except for a short metal post that extends from the PTO case. The post spins when the PTO is engaged, and the spinning post can be used to power many different types of equipment. In the particular system installed in Fidrych's truck, the PTO was connected to an exposed auxiliary drive shaft, which in turn was connected to a U-joint (also exposed). Finally, the U-joint was connected to a hydraulic pump that drove the piston that raised and lowered the dump body.

         As Fidrych's accident illustrates, having an exposed auxiliary drive shaft and U-joint[7]presents serious potential dangers, e.g., to someone working underneath the truck while the PTO is engaged. It is uncontested that this system could have been designed and installed in a manner that alleviated such risks. For example, as the summary judgment record reveals, the need for the exposed auxiliary drive shaft and U-joint could have been obviated by attaching a hydraulic pump directly to the PTO. In addition, guards could have been installed to shield the moving parts. The plaintiff makes no claim that either of the defendants here had any role in designing or installing the auxiliary power system (beyond designing the individual components that each manufactured and sold).

         At the time that Mack Trucks sold the incomplete vehicle and Dana sold the PTO, each manufacturer provided various warnings about risks presented by the future use of a completed vehicle. Specifically, the owner's manual that Mack Trucks provided for the truck included a warning about the use of PTOs and associated equipment. As the plaintiff highlights, the warning was set forth approximately midway through a 112-page manual. Its placement aside, the warning, set off in a box labeled "WARNING" and accompanied by triangles containing exclamation points, stated in bold lettering as follows:

"Power take-off (P.T.O.) units and their related equipment can be very dangerous. Any P.T.O. installation, repair or replacement should include a warning lamp which indicates P.T.O. engagement. The lamp must be located ...

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